Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1994
Actors and musicians milled around the cavernous rehearsal hall. If, at gunpoint, I was asked to pick out the movie star in the pack, he would never have been the one.
Ultra-casually dressed in a very faded green tee shirt and equally faded pink cotton-knit running shorts, his hair bedroom-rumpled, in the Barton Fink style, sporting small, round horn-rimmed glasses, Matthew Broderick looked like a techie for the upcoming production. Instead, he’ll play the lead, J. Pierpont Finch, in the anxiously-awaited revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”, the 1962 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that catapulted Robert Morse to fame. The brilliant creators of the show, Abe Burrows (book) and Frank Loesser (music and lyrics) were the award-winning “Guys and Dolls” team; the inventive revivers (Des McAnuff, director; John Arnone, scenic designer; Wayne Cilento, choreographer) are the award-winning “The Who’s Tommy” team. The star has never done a revival — or a musical.
Adroitly chopsticking his way through a quick sushi lunch-break, the 32 year-old actor said the challenge of a musical attracted him to the project. When it was offered to him several years ago, Broderick started taking singing lessons, but then he got really busy and the musical was put on hold, because of rights negotiations. At the start of the rehearsal period, when he really needed more lessons, his singing teacher suddenly had a stroke and died.
But the low-key, seemingly unflappable Broderick remains undaunted. He doesn’t appear to be haunted by the specters of Robert Morse, who defined the role of “Ponty,” or Faye Dunaway, recently fired from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” because her singing wasn’t strong enough. After repeatedly listening to the original cast album, and viewing the highly-touted 1967 film, Broderick says of Morse: “He certainly wasn’t a singer. But I like the way he did the songs. He acted them… I can’t do what he did with the role. I’m trying not to follow him. I’m not watching the movie any more. I just hope I make an entertaining evening.”
Broderick is typically self-effacing. He seems like a nice guy; intense, but nice. Serious. Soft-spoken. Unassuming for a Brat Pack heartthrob who’s made seventeen movies in eleven years, as well as acting and directing onstage, and appearing with the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Sean Connery (“Family Business”, 1989), Marlon Brando (“The Freshman”, 1990), Jack Lemmon (David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre”, made-for-TV, 1991), and Anthony Hopkins ( “The Road to Wellville”, a recent release).
He made his professional stage debut off-Broadway at the age of 17, co-starring with his father, actor James Broderick. His film debut came at age 21 (Neil Simon’s “Max Dugan Returns”, 1983), concurrent with his Tony Award-winning Broadway performance in Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, which he recreated on film. He’s directed several plays for New York’s Naked Angels theater company. All with a minimal amount of formal training: At 19, he spent six months studying with theater legend Uta Hagen, then got cast in a play and the rest, as they say, is history.
Broderick’s primary theatrical influences were his parents, his late actor father and painter/writer mother, who just wrote the screenplay for his feature film directing debut, “Infinity”. Based on the book about genius/eccentric physicist Richard Feynman, the movie is due out in 1995. “Like anything else with family,” Broderick intones earnestly, “it wasn’t perfect.”
But he’s enthusiastic about it, and about “How to Succeed”, despite the major time commitment it entails. He’s devoting about a year to this project, including the Kennedy Center production after La Jolla, and a Broadway opening in March. “Well,” he deadpans, “at least I won’t have to worry about what I’m doing for awhile.” This will also give him some time at home in New York with current main-squeeze, Sarah Jessica Parker. He wants to marry some day, and have kids (“I don’t want to be one of these old guys who just has a wall full of acting photographs”).
But right now his mind is on J. Pierpont Finch, the conniving window washer who schemes his way to the top of the Worldwide Wicket Company. Some might think of him as a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, 1986). Both characters are adorable, manipulative, ruthless, self-obsessed truth-stretchers.
“I didn’t like Ferris Bueller,” Broderick admits. “I played hooky a lot when I was in high school, too, but I sat on a bench in Central Park, not in a Ferrari…. Both these stories are about capitalism, in a way. At first, I wasn’t sure whether to hate Ponty or like him…. I saw a guy yesterday having lunch with his wife. He was on a cellular phone the whole time. It was the rudest, saddest thing. I hope Ponty won’t wind up like that. The play is a little bit about those people. What are they after? They just have to achieve. I don’t think Ponty would have an answer to why he wants to succeed. He just wants to dictate memoranda.”
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.